'I'm gonna kill one of them kids': An oral history of The Bernie Mac Show pilot
"You ever see a chicken with its neck wrung, laying to the side all lazy and weak? That's what I'm gonna do to them kids." On Nov. 14, 2001, comedian Bernie Mac looked America straight in the eye and threatened three adorable TV children with bodily harm — and just like that, America fell in love. Created by Larry Wilmore (The PJs, In Living Color, Sister, Sister), The Bernie Mac Show ran for five seasons on Fox, earning a Peabody Award, the Humanitas Prize, and an Emmy for Wilmore's pilot script. Loosely based on Mac's life, the series followed comedian Bernie Mac as he struggled to care for his sister's three children — Vanessa (Camille Winbush), Jordan (Jeremy Suarez), and Bryana (Dee Dee Davis) — with the help of his loving but no-nonsense wife, Wanda (Kellita Smith).
Using reality TV-style confessionals and animated on-screen annotations, the single-camera comedy (still a rarity in 2001) brought the already-legendary Mac to a whole new audience. "Bernie as a comedian on stage is very dynamic. If I had him up in front of an audience, I'd be competing with that version of Bernie and it'd be no competition — I would lose," recalls Wilmore. "But if I were doing a single-camera show, I could have a more intimate portrait of Bernie that doesn't compete with that outsize version of him on stage, and viewers could get to know him in a different way." Though Mac, who suffered from the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis, passed away in 2008 at the age of 50, his eponymous show — and his comedic legacy — remains as relevant as ever.
Wilmore was exec producing Fox's Emmy-winning stop-motion comedy The PJs when inspiration for another genre-busting series struck.
LARRY WILMORE [Creator]: I was watching this show called 1900 House, where they have cameras in the house and people had to act like it was 1900. I thought it was fascinating. I wanted to do something different than the normal three-camera sitcom. I thought it might be interesting to do a show where it seemed like we were eavesdropping on the family rather than having the action pushed at us. Then I saw Kings of Comedy, and I was really struck by Bernie's attitude and his jokes. I thought, "This would be an interesting story to put in this framework." It's about this guy whose sister is on drugs and he has to take care of her kids. I developed it a little bit and pitched it to Bernie. He loved it.
KEN KWAPIS [Director, producer]: Bernie had been asked to work on other [shows], but he didn't want to do anything that would basically replicate his standup act in front of a studio audience. He and Larry were very much of one mind about wanting to come up with a vibe that did not feel like a multi-camera show.
WILMORE: The confessionals, that's straight from 1900 House. It's different from how George Burns [broke the fourth wall], or even Garry Shandling, where they're just talking to us casually. In 1900 House they're confessing something, like, [adopts British accent] "I shouldn't have had that Snickers bar, I know they didn't have Snickers bars back then, but what am I supposed to do? I'm starving, for Christ's sake." So that's the feel that I wanted — Bernie had to confess something. "I'm gonna kill one of them kids!" It was there so he could give us [a glimpse of] his emotional life and try to center himself.
KWAPIS: Bernie did tell me that the premise of the show grew out of real events in his life. When I read Larry's pilot, I was so surprised how sad the premise of the story is. The script couldn't be funnier, but I thought, "Wow, this is a series that grows out of a very painful situation."
WILMORE: I wrote [the character] as "Bernie Mac" — he was playing a fictionalized version of himself, like Seinfeld. But Bernie said, "No, it really shouldn't be my name. I don't feel comfortable with that." I'm thinking, "Are you kidding? You have the best f---ing name in showbiz! Bernie Mac! Why would we not use that?" But I can't just tell him that, because then he'll just resist it. I have to figure out a way to trick him. So I wrote another draft where I made his name "Bernie Mann" instead of Bernie Mac. So every time he was supposed to be saying, "Bernie Mac don't do that," he'd have to say "Bernie Mann." He read that and hated it. It was so hilarious. I said, "Yeah, you're right. Let's change it back to Bernie Mac." But I chose the worst thing possible on purpose.
FINDING BERNIE'S FAMILY
Once Fox snapped up Bernie Mac, the search was on to find child actors who could share the screen with the larger-than-life comedian. Ten-year-olds Jeremy Suarez (Built to Last, Chicago Hope) and Camille Winbush (7th Heaven, Recess) were already tiny TV veterans by the time they auditioned, while 4-year-old Dee Dee Davis had yet to make her debut. And Kellita Smith, who viewers knew from The Jamie Foxx Show, beat out several actresses — including Robin Givens — to land the role of Bernie's wife (and proud AT&T executive) Wanda.
DEE DEE DAVIS [Bryana "Baby Girl" Thomkins]: When I went to my audition, I was dressed in bunny slippers and bunny pajamas because it was a night scene. My mom was real into it. She was like, "Okay, if it's a night scene, you're going in there in pajamas." It was the scene [from episode 2] where Bernie needed toilet paper. And I keep telling him, "I can't reach it! I can't reach it!" It's very faint, but I remember going into the room and it was a couple of men like dressed in suits. Bernie was dressed up too. We did our lines and they clapped for me.
JEREMY SUAREZ [Jordan Thomkins]: I didn't know who Bernie Mac was. My mom definitely knew Bernie Mac, so once I got to the second or third audition, she was like, "You need to go and look at some of Bernie Mac's old stuff." I think I watched him on Def Comedy Jam. He had a crazy sweater on, like Bernie always does.
CAMILLE WINBUSH [Vanessa "Nessa" Thomkins]: It was maybe the third or fourth round of auditions when I finally got to meet Bernie. We did the scene [from the pilot] where he's telling us not to touch any of his stuff. I added my own line in — when he says, "Don't touch my TV, don't touch my VCR, don't touch my DVDs," I said, "Touched it! Touched it again." I think that may have been what made me stand out from everybody else.
KELLITA SMITH [Wanda Mac]: I was a working actress, and I heard about it through my agents. My friends and I were fans of Bernie Mac, so to hear that he had a show and he needed a wife? I was like, "Oh s---, let's get it set up!" But it wasn't as simple as that. Now looking back, I kind of appreciate the journey. I auditioned two times and was told no. I was like, "Okay, I just need to meditate, pray or levitate. This role is mine!" I felt it throughout my whole being.
WILMORE: That was one of the hardest roles [to cast]. From our point of view, I don't think she was turned down twice, because no one had been hired yet. She just had to audition a couple of times. Bernie is such a big personality, finding a person that can share that stage with him and be believable and give us what we wanted [was challenging]. And Kellita turned out to be perfect.
SMITH: I wasn't cast until the 11th hour — they needed to find somebody that Friday because they had a table read that Monday. It was a situation where you go read for a studio, and if the studio likes you, you go read for the network. I had a hole in my shoe. I've never told this story. I had these tortoise-shell pumps, they were my favorite. And I as walking across the lot to get to the [audition], I felt a pebble. I said to myself, "Is this a hole in my shoe? Okay, great." In my audition, I got to flirt a little more, I got to connect with Bernie. At one point, I was raising up my shoe and I realized, "You have a hole in your shoe. How about you slip your foot out your shoe and play with your toes?" And I was like, "Oh God, I hope my feet are clean."
THE PILOT SHOOT
Early on, Wilmore had toyed with the idea of outfitting a house with cameras to create a show with a verité feel. Though Bernie Mac was shot with a traditional crew, Wilmore annd Kwapis collaborated on a style that was completely new for broadcast television, eschewing traditional sitcom editing and emphasizing Mac's outsized persona.
WILMORE: A lot of the [pilot's] style came from conversations with Ken Kwapis. We actually watched some French New Wave films in preparation. We watched Breathless and 400 Blows, and we talked about different styles of cutting.
KWAPIS: What Larry and I discussed was a style that was very down to earth and emotionally grounded, and yet at the same time was very freewheeling and flexible. More than anything, Larry wanted it to feel totally real.
SMITH: The set was a replica of a real home and it felt like a real home. Like, the appliances worked! I was like, "Has anybody taken this room over here?" [Laughs]
WILMORE: I wrote it with certain rhythms in mind because I knew the show needed to have a different rhythm. I'll give you an example. There's a scene where Bernie's talking to us, he's breaking the fourth wall in his den, and then we hear Jordan [smash something] off screen. Now my philosophy is, we didn't know that was going to happen. Bernie didn't know was going to happen. So when he leaves to see what's going on, in traditional television, you cut as soon as he gets up and starts moving. But I wanted to make it feel like something was happening in the moment, and I wrote this into the script just to make sure it was clear: When he leaves, [the camera] stays there a minute because we didn't know he was going.
DAVIS: Even as a kid, I gravitated to Bernie. So it wasn't like I was scared to be around him or do the scenes that we did. He was like a giant compared to me. You know the Jolly Green Giant? As a kid, that was the closest thing that I could think of. I was so little. What I can remember [about] looking at him, I was [always] looking up, he was so much bigger.
SUAREZ: I was playing 7 years old because I was always small. Bernie was like 6-foot-2. So [our size difference] played really well. We had a bit on-set where I would grab onto his arms and he would look like he's picking me up by my ears. It'd be so funny, 'cause people would think, "Oh my God, he's lifting that kid up by his ears!" But I'm actually just holding on with my hands.
KWAPIS: One of the things I tried to do in the pilot is as much as possible was frame Bernie head-to-toe with the kids, so that you actually enjoyed the contrast in their sizes. There's that final two-shot with Dee Dee and Bernie, where she asks if she can call him Uncle Daddy — the camera is really low to the ground, and he sort of towers over her. Even thinking about it now kind of gets me choked up. I just find it really poignant, the way he's like this gentle giant.
WILMORE: I always said the theme of the show is, "Kids are terrorists, and I don't negotiate with terrorists." That's what the show is — that and realizing that oftentimes you end up negotiating with terrorists. That's Bernie's journey through the show.
WINBUSH: I was very impressed with Jeremy's ability to break out into a tantrum. He could go from zero to 100 in, like, less than a second on screen.
DAVIS: I remember doing that scene [when Jordan has a meltdown in the drug store], when he has to freak out and scream. The funny thing is, I was sitting there like, "Oh, he shouldn't be doing that. He might get in trouble for this."
SUAREZ: When Ken [directed], he would never say action. He'd say, "And… go ahead." He was so mellow. [That scene] was so fun to play, because right when the camera would start rolling, Ken would say, "Aaand, go ahead." And then it would just be chaos. Ahhhhh! Bernie's running with those big old eyes! It was just like a whirlwind of energy.
WILMORE: [The network] didn't like it when Bernie spanked Jordan in the store. I just ignored it. I'm like, "Sorry white people, but Black people spank their kids."
THE ICONIC IMPROV
The climax of the pilot centers on a hilarious confrontation between Mac and his eye-rolling niece. When 13-year-old Vanessa uses the phone without Bernie's permission, he tries to lay down the law, only to have 'Nessa slam the bathroom door in his face. "I may not be your daddy, but I'll whup your ass just like your daddy!" he thunders. "And you'll go to jail just like you was my daddy, too," she shoots back. Flummoxed with frustration, Mac storms out of frame muttering, "I'm gonna bust your head 'til the white meat shows!" Mac threw in the line, a gem from his stand-up act, as an ad-lib — and it became an instant classic.
WINBUSH: It was extremely hard not to just burst out laughing, but it was so memorable. Like, who would think to say something like that?
WILMORE: When Bernie said it, we were laughing so hard. "You have to keep that, and you have to do it again!" We were like, "This is such a violent response!" It feels so twisted that we had so much joy in that response.
KWAPIS: I remember just going, What the Hell? I was really startled. I remember turning to find Larry just laughing uproariously. For Larry, the wheels were already turning. He was figuring out how to milk that [joke]. We had actually shot a scene with a social worker [played by Matt Bresser], but then we redid it to include the dialogue about "busting your head 'til the white meat shows."
WINBUSH: The crew and the cast started saying it as an inside joke. I'm pretty sure at one point it was on a T-shirt that everybody had.
SMITH: I remember a lot of his improv was something that I was already familiar with because of stand-up comedy. To me, the s--- was just funny, and it was real.
WILMORE: The network didn't think [the show] was funny when they were seeing dailies. They just didn't know what the heck I was doing. They tried to get me to shoot the confessionals in front of an audience. I was like, "No, that would be horrible." I had to find ways to tell them no, they kept making me do that. They eventually fired me from the show two years later because they thought I kept fighting them, but they didn't understand what the show was. [During the pilot shoot], they said, "It would be nice if the characters just had stuff that we knew was funny. Like Norm in Cheers." They wanted Wanda just to be more reliable like that, comedy-wise. And my retort was, "I'd rather have a three-dimensional, smart, intelligent, sexy, fierce Black woman on television."
SMITH: Bernie and I had an outing just to bond before we started shooting. We talked about being able to exemplify what it means to have Black love on TV. The major networks at the time weren't showing how to disagree and make up, how to take on a disappointment as a team. One of my favorite shows was The Jeffersons, but [George and Weezy] never embraced, really. They never really kissed or told secrets or whispered in each other's ear. [This show] was the opportunity to do that.
LIFE ON SET
Despite Fox's concerns about the pilot, The Bernie Mac Show debuted to over 11 million viewers and remained a strong performer throughout its first season. The cast, who bonded immediately thanks to Mac's warm and welcoming demeanor, grew to be even more like a family as production progressed.
WILMORE: One thing about Bernie, he made people feel like family immediately. I accompanied him to Las Vegas when I was first developing the show. I wanted to see how fans reacted to him. When people came up to him, they felt like Bernie was in their family. He would stop and talk to them like they were a cousin. "How you doing, man? That's good."
KWAPIS: I've worked with lots of people who need to be alone to do their best work. They need to just be off by themselves. But Bernie really fed off of everyone's energy, and that extended to both crew and cast, but particularly the young actors.
SUAREZ: Everybody would do lunch together, which was really unique for a set. Bernie would always order food for his dressing room, but he ordered enough so that anybody who wanted to could come over and eat. It'd be like 25, 30 people from the set having a little get-together in Bernie's dressing room.
DAVIS: He would order this chocolate cake, and he knew I loved the cake. He would give me a slice of it, and we would sit there and watch Maury or Jerry Springer in his dressing room.
SMITH: Baby Girl, she thought I was her real aunt. She thought I was Bernie's real wife. So when Bernie's real wife came, she didn't want to meet her! It was a very interesting moment, but I had to break it down to her that we're just doing a television series, and this is Bernie's real wife. She was like, no.
DAVIS: Oh my God. I feel so bad. Kellita introduced me, "This is Bernie's wife." And I was like, "No she's not. You're his wife." I wasn't trying to hear it. I was like, "No, you guys are married, he's my uncle, that's my auntie. I don't know this woman."
WINBUSH: The writers incorporated gymnastics in the show for Vanessa, because I was actually a gymnast. There was an episode where they actually brought in my real gymnastics team to be on the show.
DAVIS: Camille taught me how to do a cartwheel. We used to go to her gymnastic meets and everything.
SUAREZ: I loved magic. We were working at CBS Radford and Hollywood Magic was only 25 minutes away. I'd always go and get new tricks and show Bernie, and so that's one of the main reasons why it was integrated into [the show], because I was into it. Jordan rode a BMX bike in two or three episodes, because I was always riding a bike on set. It helped us as child actors to play [our roles] fully. If we can play ourselves, then we can have better instincts.
DAVIS: Me and Jeremy, we had really a love-hate relationship. We used to really bicker and argue all the time between scenes and just pick on each other. We really had a brother-sister relationship. I'll tell you where it started. It was the episode when we were at church, and I couldn't find my mom on the set. I'm at a young age, like 4 or 5 at this point, and I asked Jeremy, "Have you seen my mom?" He was like, "No, she moved back home and left you." I started crying, looking for my mom.
SUAREZ: Ohhhh, yes. Not one of my proudest moments, but yes. She was little, we were just giving her a hard time, messing with her. "You have to live on set," I think that's what I told her. It was back and forth. She was a little girl on set, and she had her annoying tendencies, and I was ready to push buttons and stir pots. It wasn't really until years later that me and Dee Dee finally got close. She would call me "Germy" — ooh, I would hate it!
SMITH: Dee Dee couldn't tie her shoes. So the episode where [Bryana] learned to tie her shoes, we really taught her how to tie her shoes. She couldn't ride a bike. Bernie really taught her how to ride a bike.
DAVIS: There was one scene where Jeremy, Bernie and I had to walk into a room. Before each take, we'd have to go back outside. And when we were in the hallway, Bernie and Jeremy were just snapping their fingers, singing a song. I couldn't snap. I couldn't snap for anything. So Bernie was like, "Put your fingers like this." It's funny — now when I snap my fingers, I think of him, because he taught me how to snap.
PRANK YOU VERY MUCH
As one of the Original Kings of Comedy, Bernie Mac knew funny, but what really made him laugh was playing pranks on set. Cast or crew, no one was safe — though Mac's young costars occasionally evened the score.
SUAREZ: We had like a pride thing about making each other laugh. Sometimes we'd be doing our solo shot and then Bernie would be right behind the camera, making silly faces at you. It was always like this competition of who can make each other laugh, like genuinely laugh. He's pulling out his ears and sticking out his tongue while we're trying to be serious. That's, like, Olympic-level training for an actor.
WINBUSH: Bernie had this thing called "Sweetheart of the Month," where he would give a shout-out to one of the crew members for doing their job well and having a good attitude. One time he came on set and he just started yelling that he didn't like doing the show anymore, and this was going to be the last episode because he was quitting, and then he stormed off of the stage. Everybody was just shocked. People started crying! And then a few minutes later, he came back, and that was the way he announced the first Sweetheart of the Month, by telling everybody he was quitting the show. It went from tears to laughing, with cake.
SMITH: He got me good one time. We had an episode [in season 2] where the kids had a real snake and real mice [as pets]. If you added a roach in there, I would've quit. I'd rather do lions, tigers, and bears. So we shoot the scene, and I was trying not to look disgusted, but I don't think I did a good job. When it was time to take a break, I darted to my dressing room. Bernie tells the whole crew, "Watch this — she acts like she's so prim and proper and sophisticated, but she's from the 'hood. Watch what happens." So I come back and they say we've got to shoot the scene one more time. Bernie says, "Let me show you what we're going to do different." He grabbed my hand, and he had something furry in his hand. I didn't even think to look. I just said, "What the f---?" I was going off! By the time I finished, Bernie said, "Uh-huh, I told you."
DAVIS: The thing is, Bernie started the pranking, and then we got into the pranking. We went to a little magic shop and got a whole bunch of, like, fake shock pins and fish candy. There was this one thing we got called fart spray, it was the worst thing ever. We sprayed it in the elevator. Everyone was walking around like, "Ooh, what is that smell?" We were cracking up about it all day. But then they had people come out to check the sewer pipes, because they thought there was a leak. [Later] we told Bernie, "Do you remember when that smell was going on in the building? Well, that was us." He could not stop laughing.
SUAREZ: I had a pet rat on set. I knew Bernie was really scared of rats, so I'd ball up a little tissue paper in my pocket, and I'd pretend like it was the rat. I'd go and touch him with it, and he'd yell, "Get off me, boy! You put that thing on me, I'm gonna throw it!"
LONG LIVE THE KING
Twelve years after his death, Bernie Mac remains a beloved cultural touchstone. Fans continue to salute the comedian on social media, whether they're talking about the presidential election, debating the best baseball movies of all time, or simply missing him. His Bernie Mac Show colleagues feel that love to this day.
SMITH: I had someone just leave a note on my door. They just moved here, and they saw me a couple of times and they realized who I am, and they wanted me to know that they're a fan of mine, and could we meet up? I'm like, "Hell no!" But okay. [Laughs]
SUAREZ: I actually had somebody recognize me the other day with my mask on and I was really impressed. He caught me off guard because I was in Target, looking for cleaning products or hand sanitizer or something, and I'm wearing a mask. And this guy goes, "Jordan?" And I just instinctively looked over, and he's like, "I recognize those beads anywhere!" He recognized my hair!
DAVIS: It's so funny because sometimes people will recognize me, but they don't know what they recognize me from. They're like, "You look so familiar! I could have sworn I grew up with you."
SUAREZ: Bernie had so many silly little sayings. Still to this day, I'll bust them out, and I don't really even realize sometimes where they come from. If you'd come to Bernie with an issue, something minor, he'd would make a joke and say, [in high-pitched sing-song] "I don't care!" And two days ago, I was talking to my wife and I said that, and then I was like, "Wait a minute, that was Bernie's line!"'
WILMORE: In Kings of Comedy, Bernie addressed the audience as one unit: "We family, North Carolina, we family!" I thought, what if I did that with America? Like, "America, you know Bernie Mac is just saying what you want to say but can't." When I was writing [the pilot], it during the 2000 election that was playing out on television. We didn't know if he was going to be president, Bush or Gore. But when the show aired, it aired [soon] after 9/11, and when Bernie said, "America," it really resonated in a way that I had not counted on when I wrote it. It was very unifying in a way I had never anticipated.
KWAPIS: Bernie addressed both you as an individual watching the show, but he also addressed everyone — America. He's not playing to one contingent in the audience or another. He says, "America, let's talk." I just love the idea that right from the get-go, he's letting you know how utterly inclusive he is. He's bringing everyone into the tent.
All five seasons of The Bernie Mac Show are available to stream on Hulu. Camille Winbush, Jeremy Suarez, and Kellita Smith continue to work in TV and film, and Dee Dee Davis is currently writing her first children's book. Larry Wilmore hosts Wilmore, a weekly talk show, on Peacock, while Ken Kwapis recently released a memoir called But What I Really Want to Do is Direct: Lessons From a Life Behind the Camera.